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The abolition of slavery in the UK came about in 1833, through an act of UK Parliament seeking to protect those with less fortunate beginnings from the comparatively privileged souls of the UK. It was to provide protection from the pleasure-seeking arrogance that can become endemic in more developed countries.
With the passing of this act, slavery began to diminish and collapse throughout the world, forging a path for greater freedom, greater democracy and eventually the universal declaration of human rights, in 1948.
Yet there were factors unbeknown to Wilberforce and co that would mean slave labour would continue for almost 200 years after their act was passed in parliament.
With Rio+20 fast approaching, Ilaria Pasquinelli - board member and consultant at The Ethical Fashion Consultancy - recently brought attention to the often-denied, yet undoubtedly immense obligation of the fashion industry to catch up and play its part in creating sustainability through the eradication of poverty (a key theme in this years summit).
Image source: www.ecouterre.com
What is brilliant about Ilaria’s blog is how she clearly illustrates how we have arrived at the point we are at today, where every man, woman and child in the UK consumes a whapping 55kg of clothing per year.
“Until the late 80s, fashion retailers and brands would typically have two main collections a year: spring/summer and autumn/winter. Then, in the 90s things changed dramatically. Increased competition saw retailers incentivising customers to visit their stores more frequently. To do this they expanded their product ranges. The latest fashions seen on runways and celebrities began to rapidly populate high-street retailers' ranges. Designers and trend seekers would turn a garment around from drawing to shop floor in just two weeks. The era of super cheap and super fast took off.”
This has led to massive change in how fashion retailers buy and where they buy from, with almost 75% of world clothing exports now being produced in developing countries and lead times having dropped from 90 days to 30 days. The role that fashion retailers play has also changed.
“Over the course of decades, large fashion retailers have acquired significant power as they are in direct contact with the end customer and can therefore influence preference. Retailers are also at the root of globalisation of consumers' tastes. Wherever one goes, people dress very similarly.
The growing complexity of the supply chains and functions of large fashion retail chains has also meant that a company's activity is not restricted to the core business of retail distribution. As a result supply chains have become largely opaque and nearly impossibly to track.”
These factors combine to create much greater pressure on the suppliers. The fashion retailers dwarf their suppliers in bargaining power and market influence. This has led countries such as Bangladesh to keep the minimum wage light years away from an actual living wage. But this is completely non-sensical…
“…It is estimated that in cases where production is out sourced to a developing world country, workers' wages only account for between 0.5- 4% of the final retail cost of a garment.”
This is a well-known fact in the senior rankings of the fashion retailers, who often demand a 75% margin. This massive margin combined with ever increasing transport costs are where the real costs lie. These numbers render the cost of wages paid to workers as insignificant.
Gap, Next and Marks & Spencer have all launched their own inquiries into abuses of working regulations at their Indian suppliers, which have resulted in children such as six-year-old Bubli being left alone while her parents work. Source: The Guardian.
These enormous margins are also a major contributing factor to clothing now being cheaper, poorer quality, more disposable and more densely consumed than at any other time in history. Textile production has almost tripled in the last 30 years, with an estimated 1m tonnes of textiles being thrown away every year in the UK alone.
“In 1977 the total demand amounted to thirty one million tonnes of fibre. In 2007, this figure had risen to nearly eighty million tonnes.”
I agree with Ilaria that the key topic on the Rio agenda should be full-scale transparency. Unlike slavery in the early 1800s, a key obstacle we face is that the consumer is unseeing and disconnected from the misery and horror of living a life of servitude.
But petitioning the fashion industry seems to be akin to banging heads against walls. Paying wages that cannot be lived on, forcing overtime, banning union representation and workplace abuse are just some of the horrors going on every day so that we can satisfy our insatiable thirst for fashion. Why has such small progress been made since the discovery of these human right offences? Isn’t a fresh approach needed?
The worlds most respected and developed governments continue to dedicate huge sums of aid in the quest for an end to extreme poverty. Yet with 80% of some countries GDP coming from garment production alone, they would be better off bringing these bulging corporations to call.
“… With sustainability still not incorporated within the core strategy of most fashion retailers, change must happen,” warns Ilaria. But with legislation that criminalises companies that profit from slave labour, change would happen - and the fashion industry might just become a power for massive economic growth in some of the world’s poorest regions.
The garment industry employs around 15% of the entire Sri Lankan workforce, with apparel accounting for around half of the country’s total exports. It is fundamental for economic development; and with Sri Lanka being one of the top apparel producing countries in the world, it is equally vital to the development of the global industry.
But there is a little known, yet ultimately profound, difference between garment manufacture in Sri Lanka and that of the rest of Asia. The Daily Mirror referred to it as their “conscientious standpoint in apparel production”, back in 2009.
“Conscientious” is not a word usually associated with Asian garment production. Yet this concept is taken so seriously by Sri Lanka that they have a dedicated, government-backed trade association named Sri Lanka Apparel, running a campaign named “Garments without Guilt”. I recently discovered that this is exactly what the Sri Lankan textile industry represents.
I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to read about Sri Lanka’s work and development in this area, when usually my research in this field results in nothing but an unsettling sense of despair.
In fact they have been so thoroughly committed to this ethos, that they are the only country in the entire world to have both a sizeable garment industry and to be a signatory of 31 conventions of the ILO (International Labour Organisation).
Not only that but the Brandix group, Sri Lanka’s biggest exporter of apparel, actually achieved a 20% growth in 2010, with 30% of its goods exported to the EU and a further 60% exported to the USA, despite economic recession on both sides of the pond.
Sri Lankan apparel exports for 2011 are up 45% on 2010, indicating that global buyers will in fact back sustainable, see-through fashion if the price and productivity are right. These figures also flout any preceding notion that human rights for workers or sustainable practices have a negative economic effect on the fashion industry.
As far back as August 2008, Brandix were awarded the Platinum Certificate for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) - the rating system of the US Green Building Council. Sri Lanka now has seven LEED apparel facilities with gold or platinum status.
More recently in July of this year, Brandix achieved another global first by becoming the first apparel manufacturer in the world to receive ISO 50001 certification, an exceptionally stringent energy management standard, introduced officially by the International Standards Organisation just a month previously on 17 June 2011.
The Brandix Eco Centre, a converted 30-year old factory, is a key manufacturing plant for Marks & Spencer and was inaugurated in April 2008 by its CEO, Sir Stuart Rose
Yet the Sri Lankan model appears to be a phenomenon in an industry overwhelmed by its own injustices to its most valuable asset – its workforce. Stories of mass fainting, malnourished employees, excessive hours and frantic disorganised strikes have become so common that many of us take the view the problem is too complicated to solve.
So what makes Sri Lanka so different?
Whilst government legislation is integral to the Sri Lankan model, these standards are actually supplier-driven. Suppliers are motivated not just by government incentives, but by a true desire to run efficient, powerful businesses whilst remaining honourable. This priceless differentiation in the world of apparel supply has come about by developing an industry-wide, unified commitment to social and environmental responsibility. And Sri Lankan suppliers are fully aware of the competitive advantage that results from these achievements.
Brandix are not alone in achieving profitable enterprise whilst harnessing shared value and sustainability. Garment Services Lanka have just spent 1.1 million USD on a brand new factory that will open in January 2012. Director Christopher Katukurunda stated last week, “We have clientele in Europe, especially the UK, Germany and France. As of now, there is no impact of EU crisis being felt and we are expecting 100 percent growth over our current revenues after the new plant becomes operational.”
Brandix Director Udena Wickremesooriya stresses that "It is customer positions that drive us, not just the numbers," Mr. Wickremesooriya explains that their exponential growth over the past decade has been largely achieved by focusing on simple fundamentals such as on-time delivery, price, speed, product and the sustainability platform, with commitments to Greener products, organic cotton, Fair Trade certifications and the Better Cotton initiative.
As a former buyer myself I cannot tell you how precisely they have hit the nail on the head. Although we traditionally negotiate on cost, these other variables are priceless when considering the bottom line of the business.
Brandix recently installed an apparel software system to help boost the efficiency of its product development and production. According to Iswaran Senthil, CEO of Brandix Denim, they are now achieving "more than double the production of patterns that fit the first time, saving a large amount of fabric, and better utilising human resources”.
Ethical buying is the one, single, most important element to unifying garment production standards around the world. And so for true success, sustainability has to combine ethics with profits and benefits all-round. With a legacy of ethics, strategic partnerships, transparency, long-term commitment and its focus on innovation, Sri Lanka has proven that it can succeed without guilt, whilst generating exceptional profits for both parties.
Is corporate collaboration the key to solving our high street’s ethical fashion dilemma?
Of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – which include halving extreme poverty, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education in time for 2015 – promoting gender equality and empowering women comes third on the list.
This traditionally low-priority issue ranks so highly in our development goals because women in the workplace equates to social equality and justice, but its importance is actually far more significant.
National economic development, business growth through female led companies, increased small / mid size businesses (SMEs), market diversification and a creation of wealth that can infiltrate families, communities and even continents are just some of the resulting phenomena.
As Penny Fowler, Head of Private Sector Advocacy at Oxfam, points out:
'Gender inequality is the biggest barrier to poverty eradication worldwide. There is a direct correlation between equal opportunities and strong economies across the globe.'
Earlier this week I was lucky enough to listen to Penny speak along with Dr Susan Mboya at the Business Fights Poverty seminar on advancing Gender Equality through Business and Partnership. Dr Mboya is Group Director of Eurasia Africa Women’s Economic Empowerment for the Coca-Cola Company.
Now here is a brand that’s been around the block a few times. Two-thirds of Coca-Cola consumers are women and in Africa the vast majority of transactions take place via small businesses run by women. In Ghana 70% of all sales take place through female-run small businesses (Coca-Cola Africa Foundation Community publication, Issue 04).
Coca-Cola understand that for their brand to be truly empowered then the women who sell their product and consume their product must also be empowered. The logic is surprisingly simple.
Coca-Cola’s ‘5 BY 20’ initiative is committed to empowering 5 million women by 2020, connecting female entrepreneurs with what they require in order to succeed. This breaks down into several categories.
• Access to retail assets such as chillers
• Access to technology such as solar panels and electronic billing
• Access to business skill training to grow their business
• Access to finance using the IFC to underwrite loans at the local level to reduce interest rates
• Access to a mentor and peers
The concept that Coca-Cola have so expertly grasped is that if they are to reach their own business vision of doubling servings from 1.5 billion (yes billion) per day in 2010 to 3 billion by 2020, then they need to find new ways of creating sustainable business. Coca-Cola has seen proven results that women have a lower failure rate in business, as they tend to reinvest considerably more in their businesses and in the social cohesion of their staff. They are also indispensable in distributing the product in otherwise inaccessible areas (Coca-Cola Africa Foundation Community publication, Issue 04).
Speaking at the same event Marie Staunton, CEO of Plan UK, explained how chocolate brands such as Nestlé are reaping the rewards of a recent initiative in Pakistan, where women run 93% of agriculture. Unsupported, these women have historically had to sell their produce on to middle men who take advantage of the situation by marking up the price and watering down the product. Plan has given these women access to the tools needed to sell directly to the brand at a higher price, but with superior quality. Nestlé achieves a better product at the same cost and the women are able to reinvest their tri-fold profit. Their status within the home begins to rise as they provide for their families reliably and effectively. Convergence is the ultimate result, which means that this story replicates and strengthens for generations to come.
Marie points out we desperately need developing economies to grow to achieve economic stability in the rest of the world, a point corroborated by Bill Gates in his recent report for the G20 summit. She comments on the need for persistence and the vital role of the corporate to look beyond what has always been done and look at how things could be done for the benefit of both the producer and consumer.
This got me thinking. What better vehicle could exist to achieve this 'top 3' MDG than bringing about effective legislation in the garment industry?
The garment industry accounts for 78% of Bangladesh’s economy and 85% of the workers are women – mostly rural migrants who have never had access to education. Many of these women have virtually no knowledge about their rights or how to succeed and develop their careers in the workplace. Could the high street learn a thing or two from these emerging collaborations?
Rob Schuham of Common believes collaboration is the new competition – sustainable capitalism where every part of the machine profits. A collaborative brand opens up its value and shares it with its customer, its stakeholders, and its future generations. If Coca-Cola has been around for 120 years and yet half its market capitalisation appears to be made up of brand value, don’t our dearly beloved high street chains have some value to share out?
Retailers such as Gap, Timberland, M&S and Wal-Mart have all taken steps to collaborate with and empower women, mainly through education and training. The immediate results include women:
• Demonstrating more willingness to take on responsibilities
• Assuming leadership roles
• Communicating more effectively at work and at home
• Showing improved ability to solve workplace problems
• Being better able to support their peers
• Gaining more respect from their family members
• Inevitably feeling more respect for themselves
Increased productivity, superior quality control, and a happy, healthy workforce giving back to their communities outside of the workplace, means no sacrifice is needed from the retailers – just a respectful sharing of expertise and resources.
Women currently influence over 70% of global household purchases, with 40% of the global workforce being made up of women (Coca-Cola Africa Foundation Community publication, Issue 04). There is an enormous well of talent and resource out there that if nurtured thoughtfully, could grow a ripple effect of positive change throughout the global economy.
The high street represents the realm of the female.
Steely-faced mannequins ooze attitude, mimicking the throngs of self-made style queens passing below. Fashionistas, Super Mums, high-powered businesswomen, savvy hipsters, you name it – even the retail brand directors and global buyers are women. Across the 8 years of my career as a buyer I never worked on a floor with more than 10% of employees being male.
And amongst the hordes of relentless, image-hungry consumers, flitter the next generation. These ever-younger females seek to emulate the mass of images broadcast at them every day – suggesting that to be a success is to be a beauty. To be a beauty one MUST have style. To have style one MUST shop. And what does any woman worth her salt know better than to shop?
Yep us ladies sure rule the high street. This is today’s modern society, where to be female is to communicate power and freedom through our personal interpretation of the trends of our ever-deepening jungle. We pick our tribe and represent it daily through the clothes we choose to wear. We support our faltering economy with feverous solidarity. Queens of the shops, rulers of our domain; we walk to the beat of our own drum.
But there is an irony that escapes us on an almost daily basis. There is a glaring inequality that has been born almost entirely out of the female pursuit of equality over the past 100 years.
The irony that a huge proportion of the garment workers involved in the 46 billion pound a year British fashion industry are, in fact, women. Underpaid, exploited, harassed, and discriminated against, women. They suffer unspeakable violations of their human rights, making products that will be bought religiously on the other side of the hemisphere, by other women.
The cruel truth is that very few people actually benefit from this anxiety provoking 21st Century condition. The economy appreciates the increased purchasing fundamentals and the government enjoys its now increased rate of 20% VAT from each transaction. The business owners and shareholders of the largest retailers can find themselves in the top percentile of rich lists, although the industry is so notoriously fickle even they are running into hard times.
But what of the individual consumers like you and me? Weighing down our precious wardrobes with burdensome items that are incredibly hard to dispose of, but often never worn after the season in which they were bought. For myself these purchases have often made up for 80% of my closet. Do I feel better when I buy them - yes. Does the feeling last, contributing to an increase in my quality of life - sadly, no.
And what of the individual producers like Moni, a woman the same age as myself?
Moni and I share some similarities. We are both women in our early thirties. We enjoy spending time with our family and friends. We often wonder what life would be like had circumstances been different. We feel nostalgic about our distant youth. We aspire to be greater than we are…
Moni started supporting her family at the age of 14. I spend my money as I choose. The longest day I ever worked was 13hours, usually 9. Moni works 18hour shifts regularly and begins her day at 5am. Maternity leave is standard in my workplace. Moni was not entitled to maternity leave. Instead her managers would shout obscenities at her or threaten to fire her for needing the bathroom. I receive a living wage directly into my bank the last day of each month. Moni has no guarantee she will receive her wage if business has been slow. Moni and her family’s only shelter is a fragile shack in a slum that is often flooded, where one toilet is shared between 90 people. My tiny one bed in Tufnell Park is warm and cosy.
A Cambodian garment worker is carried to an ambulance after fainting at a factory in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Samrang Pring/Reuters
OK you get the picture. But it’s not a comparative thing as my beloved boyfriend often tries to tell me. It’s true that Moni is more resilient than I am due to her circumstances. She is undoubtedly capable of working longer hours than I am. She can survive on much less money than I can and would be far more stunned by luxurious clothes, cars or restaurants. But even Moni is aware that the conditions in which she works and lives ARE disgraceful. Not just by our standards, but by hers also. Bangladeshi workers have been revolting against their humanitarian hardship since 2006. Even in their comparable standard of living – this is totally unacceptable.
So why are women funding this frenzy? Why are we comfortable exploiting vulnerable women; women suffering the same discrimination we faced ourselves in this country only 100 years ago?
When we pull on your jeans/ jeggings/ treggings tomorrow, let’s spare a second thought to the worker who stitched them, who, like Moni, works so hard to create the clothes we desire so badly. And let’s hope that for all her hard work and dedication, she’ll be able to feed her family tonight.
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Can the high street really meet the demands of fast fashion, ever–changing and disposable as it is, whilst maintaining ethical sourcing practices?
For many the answer seems to be a resounding “NO.” We continue to read blogs and articles from all manner of informed people who genuinely believe we cannot make clothing ethically without it costing the earth. But take a look at ActionAid’s extensive living wage investigations and the truth is clear. If Asda paid just a further 2pence on a £4 t–shirt it would mean the difference between extreme poverty and a living wage for their workers in India. Wouldn’t we all happily pay the extra 2pence and make it an even £4.02?
Yet a larger majority (one I used to fit into myself not so long ago) seem happy to be diverted by mischievous greenwash - a form of spin in which green marketing is used deceptively whilst core business practices are often anything but. It can be a great first step, but needs to be followed through in the company values. All too often we the consumer choose to ignore the glaring problem of workers being paid below the minimum wage, denied the right to union representation and being forced to work hours that would make a hedge fund manager whimper.
Greenwash has become such a massive issue that guides are even being written on how to use green marketing effectively, i.e. for profit.
Take Topshop’s recent collaboration with famed wool designer Izzy Lane; premium wool coats made from her own sheep sanctuary in the Yorkshire Dales.
Well not the easiest solution to replicate but definitely press-worthy. What we need to do is take a look at the real problems – such as why Arcadia owned brands such as Topshop are just about the only major high street players left still refusing to sign up to the Ethical Trading Initiative.
Perhaps a more sustainable angle would be to tackle why a business that paid dividends to the tune of £1.2 billion in 2005 can’t devote a small amount of its funds to ensuring a living wage for the people creating its wares.
Topshop unfortunately are just one of many culprits on the British high street. Benetton demonstrates the art of greenwash here.
Benetton could be applauded for positioning its brand around equality and unity for all human kind. However, this week Ethical Consumer launched their 2011 high street buying guide and illustrated Benetton as one of 9 brands failing to demonstrate any adequate policies in place to protect worker’s rights.
And who could beat this classic example from TK Maxx, fantastically creating these Fairtrade tees for Comic Relief. Yet why did they not provide any comment on Ethical Consumer’s report that places them in the least ethical retailer of the year nominations?
I, myself having spent most of my career as a fashion buyer for one of the leading high street fashion retailers, had come to believe that sweatshops were a thing of the past. I now realise that as buyers we are unaware of the exact origins of our product, whose hands are touching it and what wage they are being paid. Wages don’t actually factor on the negotiating landscape, as compared with raw material and transport costs they pale into insignificance.
Ethical fashion is quintessentially about honesty and integrity. If we’re going to go to the effort of creating campaigns, why not put that effort into battling the discrepancies between the image we communicate to the public and the actual truth of our contribution to this insidious yet solvable travesty?
Accountability and transparency are what is required. It might not make the headlines of Grazia, but it will bring us closer to the eradication of extreme poverty. And if an old school high street giant like Marks and Spencer can manage it, then surely there’s no reason why this can’t be the norm across the high street.
Yes we can forgive ourselves for thinking a solution is impossible – after all we have been deceived and manipulated for far too long. Now is the time to start thinking for ourselves. If people power can launch an Arab spring, then can’t we also overthrow the dictatorship of high street fashion?
[Have your say…Do you have any examples of green wash to add to this list? We want to hear about them – post them here…]